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What is Active Imagination?

In today's world, having an active imagination simply means that one is full of daydreams and creative ideas, but in Jungian psychology, it is an activity that an individual partakes in with the goal of bridging the gap between the conscious and unconscious parts of their mind, and is a crucial part of the process of individuation. The practice of active imagination does not seek to imagine something into being that doesn't exist, rather it uses imagination to seek out things that already exist but are hidden in the subconscious. It is essentially a type of meditation, during which one imagines unconscious material, thus bringing it into consciousness.

Jung developed the method of active imagination in the early twentieth century and practiced it with his patients for its therapeutic, healing benefits in untangling possible problems buried in the unconscious. One of Jung's basic tenets was the belief that dreams are messages from the subconscious, and one of his primary methods of active imagination was to use prompts to encourage his patients to visually recreate dream images and characters, and then encourage them to carry on conversations with those images and characters.

Jung experimented with active imagination on himself extensively, to further his own progress toward individuation.

How to practice active imagination

People can and do learn to practice active imagination on their own. Robert Johnson, Jungian analyst and author of Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth describes a four-step process: the invitation, the dialog, the values, and the rituals. But before one can practive active imagination, the stage needs to be set. One needs to be alone and without distractions, and able to relax for an hour or so in a quiet state. It's important to record what happens during active imagination, so that the material doesn't slip away back into the unconscious. Usually people will write down their questions and answers, or type them out. You can also choose to use a recording device if that works better for you.

It's not uncommon to be afraid that you are just making stuff up and that is has no representation of what actually exists in your subconscious. In a sense, you are just making stuff up, but it almost certainly does come from your subconscious. That is the point of the exercise.

The Invitation The first step is to invite the characters of the unconscious to come to the surface and interact with you. If you've had a dream recently, you might want to visualize the characters in your dream. If something is bothering you, or feels off, you might focus on that feeling, and ask the unconscious where it is coming from. What images are associated with this feeling? What inner character can speak to you about this feeling?

If you don't know how to start your active imagination, it can be effective to imagine yourself walking on a sea shore or some other place that's special to you, and see what happens. Someone might show up.

However you've begun, images will come to you eventually. If you sit in this space for awhile, an inner person will show up and you can ask them who they are, and what they want from you. And the dialog begins.

the dialog During the dialog phase, you ask questions to your inner person or people and they answer you. This is the heart of active imagination, and the part that you'll want to record.

As much as possible, do not try to dominate or manipulative the conversation. Be kind and gentle with these inner characters of yours, and be open to what they have to say. Stay focused on them, and listen. The characters of the subconscious have very different opinions than our conscious selves, which can be startling, but don't be afraid of them. Be friendly.

Beyond that, there is no script to follow when talking to your inner people. It's different for everyone.

the values The archetypes of the subconscious are primitive and don't operate with any kind of ethical code. They aren't concerned with the human societal values that we've developed throughout history as a means of living together reasonably well. Most of them mean you no harm—Jung believed that 80% of our unconscious mind is oriented toward being helpful;. But there is that other 20%, and if a character wants you to engage you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, just say no.

The majority of the archetypes are peaceful and helpful, but some, such as the Witch and Trickster archetypes, can be power hungry and destructive, and might seek to influence our conscious behaviors to make us serve their agendas. It's important to not let that happen.

the rituals Lastly, Johnson talks about the need to bring the interactions that we experience with our subconscious via active imagination into our conscious lives in a way that makes sense to our lives, but doesn't confuse the unconscious material with real life objects. We don't want to project the image of the Witch onto our mother, for example. For this reason, it's important to take some time after active imagination to perform some ritual to let things settle in. This can be taking a walk, drawing or painting. Going for a swim makes an excellent ritual ending to active imagination, although it might not be available to many of us as a habitual, ritual ending to meditation. Whatever you choose, it should be a solitary, physical activity that you can perform after every active imagination session.

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